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Posted November 1, 2007

Ongoing Education is a Sine Qua Non for the Priesthood

Study is Ministry!
By Eugene Hemrick

Unlike most teachers who work with the minds of their students, priests have the awesome task of working with both the minds and consciences of our people. If we are to accomplish this well, we must follow the dictum: Never so value the unending activity of pastoral ministry to the neglect of ongoing study! As one well-known professor would tell his students, “Study is ministry!” As contemplation is a sine qua for our ministry, so too, is ongoing education. Love and service are the essence of the priesthood, but without study and ongoing learning, they often end up lacking substance.

Why stress the intellectual world so strongly? Because books, new ideas and critical thinking are essential to the vitality of our priesthood. Shakespeare once said, “Ignorance is the curse of the gods, knowledge the wings whereby we fly to heaven.” We might add that an intelligent, knowledgeable priesthood is much more likely to conjure up heavenly thoughts.

Not only are our times crying for a more intellectual priesthood, the exaltations of intelligence have always been a priority throughout history.

In the psalms we read: “Wisdom is the principal thing, get wisdom and with all they getting get understanding.”

The philosopher, Peter Viereck states that an intellectual person is a “full-time servant of the Word, or of the word, that is, a kind of priest either of a lofty ideal, or of literary, artistic, philosophical pursuits.”

Fr. Walter Burkhardt has stated: “Unless the Spirit-led ministry of American priests pays high tribute to the life of the mind, unless the majority of Catholic seminaries cultivate intelligence with seriousness and in depth, we risk losing today’s masses . . . the educated class.”

Turning to Pope Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi he writes: “For the church it is a question not only of preaching the Gospel in ever wider geographic areas . . . but also of affecting and as it were upsetting, through the power of the Gospel, mankind’s criteria of judgement, determining values, points of interest, lines of thought, sources of inspiration and models of life, which are in contrast with the Word of God and the plan of salvation.”

In speaking of evangelization upsetting world values, Pope Paul is calling for the creation of spiritual tension between the world and religion that depends on prudent critical thinking.

When we speak of ongoing education here, it is not envisioned as only one or two ways of keeping up our education. A variety of exciting, imaginative forms are at our disposal.

Usually when we think of ongoing education, it’s envisioned in an academic setting. Truth would counsel: where and if the opportunity presents itself for taking classes, just do it!

After completing twelve years of seminary, the last thing I wanted to do was return to school. Three months into my first parish assignment, the diocesan director of religious education asked me to pursue a degree in religious education.

I went to the pastor and told him I felt I was needed more in the parish. He replied, “Go back to school. They can never take an education away from you.”

He then added, “And I will pay for that education.”

I took his advice and began courses at Loyola University in Chicago. As I began my new studies, I suddenly realized the inadequacy of our seminary courses. Many of the new courses I was taking weren’t on the radar scope of our seminary professors. The new, exciting ideas I gleamed at Loyola were an absolute blessing! They provided me with substantive materials for homilies and adult education courses, and thanks to insightful courses in psychology, I learned what to avoid when counseling people. Most of all, these courses reminded me of a song we often hear at weddings, “We’ve only just begun.” After twelve years of education, I really believed I had completed all studies necessary to be a priest. I then realized I had only just begun.

The courses included more than books, lectures and papers. It gave me the opportunity to mix with priests from all over Chicago, and to share ideas with them. In education, we have the principle of informal education, meaning that coffee breaks and informal sharing between lectures, are often as beneficial as the formal learning obtained in the classroom.

Thanks to returning to school, my theological horizons were expanded; I shared ideas with priests I normally wouldn’t have known, and going off to school moved me out of my comfortable parochial setting into a bigger exciting world.

No doubt there are priests who feel they would prefer to center their life around the parish, devoting all their attention to it. They have no interest in moving out of their parochial setting. Here is where truth would ask: do those who feel this way, or for that matter, do all of us need to re-envision what it means to be a parish priest? Should our focus be solely on pastoral ministry within this setting? What is the difference between being tied to a parish and being tied down to it? In all honesty, is it all that virtuous to be tied down to a parish and make it the entirety of a priest’s life? In light of the way parish life has changed, do we need expanded images on how best a priest can serve it? For that matter, do we need to rethink how priests should expand their intellectual life in order to modernize their services and avoid getting into ruts? Cardinal John Henry Newman describes an idea as an illumination. Truth would ask: are we satisfied with the light we generate now in our parish settings, or could we use much more brightness? If we need more brightness, than we need to update our education.

The world Kremlin means wall. One of the reasons Russia became cosmopolitan and modernized during the reign of Peter the Great was that he was forever visiting other countries to learn how they built ships and managed their businesses. He went beyond the Kremlin and its walls and brought these ideas home. In doing so, he caused his status quo politicians and people to move into a new and more progressive age. This “Peter the Great Principle” has been repeated throughout history by other great leaders. It’s a principle our new millennium priesthood needs to practice if it is to suited for the new millennium.

The reasons for emphasizing getting out and learning are based on an experience I had with the pastor of a very active parish. As busy as it was, he always made time to attend seminars around the country. Each time he returned, we were treated to new ideas he had gleamed from those seminars. The results were a parish that was forever at the cutting edge of ministry at its best. Liturgies, religious education and creative ideas were forever moving to new inspirational levels.

The desire to seek ideas doesn’t start on the parish level but in the seminaries. Unfortunately studies on seminarians reveal a good number of our men can’t wait to complete their schooling and get into pastoral ministry. Many considered studies a necessary requirement to endure on the road to becoming a priest. No doubt after years of study, most men, especially older ordained men, feel they have had enough serious, disciplined study. They want to put their studies into practice. As justifiable as are these feelings, ongoing education is a sine qua non for today’s priesthood for several reasons.

First, most of our parishioners are not only highly educated, but are facing new challenges like no generation before them. They are forever looking for guidance. Without ongoing education, we run the risk of forfeiting our role as teacher and prudent spiritual guide. Although we can’t solve everyone’s problems, education gives us the ability to be better conversant with and specific on problems, and, therefore, to be more on the wave length of our people. In politically-correct-sensitive times, there’s nothing more damaging to our priesthood than having priests mount the pulpit and make fools of themselves by not having done their homework.

When we reflect on the large populations of immigrants entering our churches, it becomes even more imperative to keep up studies. They will be or will desist being in our parishes depending on how we relate to them. Learning their languages, history and traditions is vital to keeping them within the fold.

A third reason ongoing education is so crucial to the priesthood is that new issues are calling for new theological interpretations. For example, there is the issue of ecology, preserving resources, global warming, new types of war, urban sprawl, congested highways, stem cell research, and a more chemically dependent society. These are only the tip of the iceberg of new millennium issues calling for serious theological reflection.

Today’s priest must be able to present theology in a way that it speaks to the essence of our times. As we saw in an earlier chapter, 9-11, tsunami’s, and we might add, globalization are calling for new applications of theology. In order to respond, priests along side the laity need to be educated so that we can work together in creating a City of God amidst increasing secularism, the profane and a new generation of problems.

Ongoing education doesn’t necessarily mean taking formal courses in a school setting. It might take the form of having a personal interest in a particular topic and making a lifelong commitment to mastering it. I have known many priests who have fantastic expertise in a variety of topics that are related to their ministry. When you go into their room, magazines, journals and books abound on a subject of interest to them. They make a particular topic or subject their hobby.

One of the most unexpected blessings of my priesthood happened when I was invited by the publisher of Ave Marie to write a book on virtues. For some years, I had studied and based homilies on them. I had even used them as variables to measure effectiveness in ministry. They were my hobby.

The invitation to write on virtues encouraged me to gain more mastery over their meaning. My antenna was forever looking for new references to them. I must admit that every time I learned a new insight, it made my day. New ideas truly contain vitality and the brightness of which Newman spoke!

Our present age is yet another reason we can never forgo ongoing education. We now have the Internet and numerous on-line computer courses and information available at the tip of our fingers. CD ROMs contain reference books, educational movies and other forms of easy-to-get and easy-to-digest information. All we need is the asceticism that Guardini and St. Paul advocate to practice utilizing them.

If none of the above is available or doesn’t appeal to us, we still have a wonderful option for continuing our education: the breviary. It contains the best courses in the world. All we need to do is meditate on the readings and psalms intelligently, and to deeply reflect on their wisdom.

One final way to envision ongoing education is to see it in terms of tapping into intelligent people. An intelligent conversation with a well-informed person can equal hours of learning spent in a classroom, or in reading a book. I’ll never forget the first time I learned this lesson.

I was new to the parish. One early morning when I opened the church, lo and behold an elderly gentleman who had been waiting outside yelled at me, “You’re late!” I retaliated by telling him he was wrong, and then I ushered him to the front of sacristy to serve mass for me.

Later I learned he was a famous doctor at the National Institute for Health. In fact, he was an associate researcher with a Nobel Prize winner who had discovered a life-threatening gene.

We mended our differences and became best of friends. One week I decided to write on the pros and cons of medical breakthroughs for my weekly national column. The more I reflected on what I had written, the more uncomfortable I felt. After Mass, I stopped my friend and told him about my difficulties. The conversation that followed was priceless. He opened up medical vistas I never would have seen. Within a half hour I not only had a course in the complexity of medical breakthroughs, but a course in the medical-moral dilemmas scientists face. The experience helped me to realize knowledge is in our own backyard. All we need to obtain it is to humbly ask.

One of the biggest complaints against our priesthood is that it lacks substance. Our homilies are sparse on content; our theology is sometimes illogical, and even our level of conversation is superficial due to a lack of fresh ideas. Although priests are good in other ways, some need to reexamine the various types of ignorance that exist and truthfully ask: “What might be hindering me from being more substantive?

Ignorance comes in many forms. It can be invincible, vincible or crass. As much as we might try, there are some things we can’t know. This is invincible ignorance. Some things can definitely be known, but we neglect to learn them. This is vincible ignorance. There are some things we know we should learn, but to which we turn a blind eye. This is crass ignorance. Truth would tell us: to be substantive vincible and crass ignorance must be eradicated! Some of the worst scandals and divisiveness in the priesthood have their roots in this ignorance. To be pastorally sound depends on being substantive.